The Roots of Systemic Anti-Cyclist Bias Reach Back 100 Years

Manhattan's Hester Street, on the Lower East Side, in 1914. (Maurice Branger/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

By Craig Davis

I am often asked how the streets became so dangerous that the vast majority of potential cyclists conclude it’s not worth risking their lives to ride a bike and led a California Highway Patrol Commander to state that “riding a bike on the road is like riding a bike in a shooting range.”  This brief article provides a view of the seeds, strategically planted by the nascent auto industry one hundred years ago, that remain at the root of the systemic anti-cyclist bias permeating law enforcement and the legal system today.

Though inconceivable today, one hundred years ago, streets were shared community spaces, as shown above, filled with slow moving horse-drawn carriages, people standing in conversation, others walking in all directions, even merchants selling their goods from stationary carts.  Parents comfortably sent their children to play in the streets.

The first British electric car, introduced in the mid-19th century, was limited to a speed four miles per hour so a man could run in front waving a flag “warning citizens of the oncoming menace.”

As cars began to boom in the 1920s, deaths skyrocketed.  In 1925 children were one third of all traffic deaths and drivers were routinely depicted as the grim reaper in cartoons and on the cover of the New York Times as shown below.  “In most pedestrian deaths, drivers were charged with manslaughter regardless of the circumstances of the accident.”

Nation Roused Against Motor Killings

The November 23, 1924, cover of the New York Times shows a common representation of cars during the era — as killing machines. (New York Times)

In the mid 1920s, fearing legislation that might restrict auto sales, auto industry groups launched a multi-pronged national campaign to execute a hostile takeover of the streets.  Similar to tactics used in today’s hyperaggressive politics, they crafted model traffic laws that evicted pedestrians from the streets and manufactured legally designated pedestrian access areas: crosswalks.  They then strategically replicated the laws in cities across the country.

The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce provided a free wire service where newspapers sent basic crash details and received a complete article that shifted blame from drivers to pedestrians when pedestrians were hit by a vehicle.  Newspapers parroted auto industry propaganda in exchange for profitable advertising revenue.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) sponsored school programs aimed at keeping children out of the streets.  Children were ridiculed and even put on mock trial by hundreds of their peers for not following the industry manufactured rules.

Police were enlisted to publicly shame people who ventured outside of specifically designated areas “by whistling or shouting at them — and even carrying women back to the sidewalk.”

The auto lobby also strategically otherized people who didn’t follow the newly established industry rules, labeling them jay-walkers.  “Jay” was a disparaging and belittling term meaning someone from the countryside, a “rube” or “hick” who was too stupid to follow the new rules.  The auto lobby even rebranded it into a legal term meaning “someone who crossed the street at the wrong place or time.”

“In retrospect, you could have predicted that pedestrians were doomed. They were politically outmatched. ‘There was a road lobby of asphalt users, but there was no lobby of pedestrians.’”  “By the 1960s, cars had become so dominant that when civil engineers made the first computer models to study how traffic flowed, they didn’t even bother to include pedestrians.”  This multi-pronged national campaign secured the streets as the exclusive domain of the auto industry.  The ramifications of this hostile takeover remain woven throughout American culture and society today.

For example, police departments still use the term “accident” to refer to traffic violence caused by drivers hitting cyclists and pedestrians, even when a “4-year-old girl was killed by a driver” while crossing a Koreatown street with her mother in a crosswalk. LAPD deemed it "an unfortunate accident."  “’Accident’ minimizes the prevalence and seriousness, and creates a perception block about who is responsible when a driver kills someone with their car.” It “suggests nothing could have been done to predict or prevent the collision.”

Newspapers still parrot driver-centric victim-blaming instead of providing more factual contextualized analysis.  This systemic anti-cyclist and pedestrian bias is so widespread that it has even been memorialized in academic research: If You Want to Get Away with Murder, Use Your Car.

At CVE, we reject the idea that cyclists and pedestrians have to be doomed to serious injuries and death when using the streets and that nothing can be done to predict or prevent collisions.  This is why we advocate that cyclists ride with an inexpensive and readily available camera, and why we created a free Incident Management System where cyclists can track, analyze and map their near miss incidents, and search for repeat offenders, to change drivers’ behavior before collisions occur.

These incident reports can also help cyclists hold law enforcement accountable for enforcing existing laws for cycling safety.  They can also generate highly accurate and objective near miss data for traffic planners to understand the actual threats cyclists face and thereby improve road infrastructure.

Over one hundred years after the first British electric car was speed-limited to four miles per hour, the UK is once again taking the lead in creating safe, shared streets.  Britain’s Highway code, the UK road safety rules first published in 1931, has just been updated with a new hierarchy where motorists are officially put on notice:  “In any interaction between road users, those who can cause the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they pose to others.”  The hierarchy places the most vulnerable at the top, pedestrians and then cyclists, and the most responsible at the bottom, vehicles based on size and weight.  This is a strong model for the US to evaluate and consider.

In the meantime, we strongly recommend that all towns, cities and counties publicly support and implement CVE’s Six Commitments for Cycling Safety.

The roots of today’s systemic anti-cyclist bias discussed in my recent article reach back one hundred years ago to the birth of an auto industry worried about its profitability and viability.  The title of my recent article is the statement from a CHP Commander quoted in the introductory paragraph of this article: “Riding a bike on the road is like riding a bike in a shooting range.”

We can create safe, shared streets if law enforcement enforces existing laws for cycling safety.  Please join us in calling for a Civil Grand Jury investigation into systemic anti-cyclist bias by adding your thoughts and comments at the end of my article. Please also encourage everyone who cares about cycling and pedestrian safety to add their thoughts and comments as well.

We need everyone to stand up and make their voices heard!

If you support our work to help create safe, shared streets, please add your thoughts and comments below.


  1. Bruce Dughi on April 15, 2022 at 12:02 pm

    Wow, brilliantly written and illuminating. We all seem to forget our history but it informs our present and future so it is imperative that we understand it. The Netherlands experienced a similar kind of conflict between people and cars but later in time (1960s). With a stronger bike culture, cycling finally won. We should also remember that our first modern roads were paved by cyclists via club dues. There are some examples of people winning back the streets like New York City.

    Even more obtrusive than moving cars are the parked ones. I still cannot get over how the public thinks it is ok for government to subsidize the storage of private property. They do not allow us to store anything else so why cars? Roads were made to move things not store them. On-street parking was invented for the automobile. It did not exist more than 100 yrs ago.

  2. John Koonz on April 15, 2022 at 12:19 pm

    The media also perpetuate the use of the word ‘accident’. When I see an online article about an ‘accident’ I contact the writer and ask them to please stop using that word and give an example of how the headline could have been better written. Usually they have their contact in the byline. It’s a small thing, but if enough of us do it maybe we can swing the publics perception around a bit.

    • Marco S_P on June 11, 2023 at 7:21 am

      The same thing happened in Italy in the late Fifties. Car market was skyrocketing and manifacturers’ lobby added new rules to empty the streets with the motivation of safery. Thanks God, Italy is an European nation, although very “americanized” in many ways and now we have a lot of town with street car closed and lanes dedicated to bike drivers.

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